The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Pretenders To The Throne

Another review of a BBC Shakespeare from 2006. Warning – quite a lot of this is COMPLETE ARSE. Oh, what a know-all git I was! This review is basically a load of pompous crap, I must’ve been having a bad day or something, so apologies in advance.


Déjà vu. I've seen this one before. We did this play at my school for GCSE, so I'm pretty sure I've already done an essay about it. All I can remember is that I went to great lengths to analyse the memorable exchange, a classic piece of Shakespearean writing:

HOTSPUR: A plague upon it! I have forgot the map!

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

The point I made was that there has to come a point where you stop analysing. Is the author's intent with the above dialogue to illustrate Hotspur's hotheadedness and lack of forward planning, his reliance on instinct over rationality, and to then contrast it with Glendower's more level-headed, pragmatic and self-reliant attitude? Or is it just a rather crap bit of business because Shakespeare was stuck as to how to begin a scene about a funny mad Welshman? A scene which must have been a bugger to write, as it needs to introduce a character and get across exposition, but which has no plot beats in it at all, and really is just fifteen minutes of two people telling each other what they already know, singing for a bit then falling asleep. Or is it a deliberate moment of light relief to act as a contrast to the themes within the play, themes about loyalty, and royalty, and How To Win Friends And Influence People. And people trying to remember where they put their maps.

The thing is, the above paragraph almost certainly shows me putting more thought into those two lines that Shakespeare ever did. And that is an important thing to avoid. Because Shakespeare, as a writer, wrote stuff for audiences to understand fully, in one sitting, in a cold, noisy theatre with uncomfortable seats where people would throw cakes at the actors and grumble that they could have gone to see the bear-baiting next door.

Indeed, as a general principle, it is the whole idea of critical excavation that I have a problem with. Shakespeare did not bury hidden themes and subtexts within his plays; the themes and ironies are clearly signposted and Supposed To Be Noticed In One Sitting. I can understand the need for a little critical dusting, to get a clearer view through the muddling opacity of language shift, but digging beyond that is, I feel, counterproductive.

Because, after a while, the process of critical excavation stops telling you anything about the text but instead, as the critic starts to second-guess the author's subconscious intents and influences, they start to drift into cod-psychoanalysis and ultimately end up telling you more about their own problems than whatever they are analyzing. Like bad critics, they project their own obsessions, agendas and paranoias onto their subject matter.

That is the first danger. That looking too deeply is a slippery slope to madness. If you pay as much attention to the text as the author did in writing it, fair enough, there is insight to be gleaned. But once you step beyond that into the land of hidden meanings, symbolics and semiotic games, you are basically heading down the road to finding mathematical theorem in the lyrics of Kate Bush, clues to the death of Paul McCartney, and internet discussions about how Russell T Davies has clearly taken the inspiration for his scripts from the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who.

Which brings me to the second danger. Shakespeare didn't write plays to be criticised or to have essays written about them. He wrote them to sell tickets and his associated merchandise - Richard III humps, Shylock comedy noses and Macbeth rubber daggers (plus the overseas gameshow rights to the Merchant of Venice Lucky Box Game). The danger is when authors start writing things specifically to be critically dissected.

That is not writing. Good, clever writing is stuff which excites people, involves them, and gets an emotional response out of them, whether that be laughter, tears, fear or joy or the combination of all four that can be commonly found in most episodes of Rentaghost. Clever writing is not the accumulation of literary references, in-joking or playing meta-textual games. Clever writing is not a process of going “Do you see what I was doing there? Aaaah”.

And my point, which I am now finally getting at, is that Shakespeare did not write plays as an exercise in “Do you see what I was doing there? Aaaah”. So when teachers and critics start going “Do you see what Shakespeare was doing there? Aaaah” they should be lightly slapped.

I mean, Henry IV Part One has a recurring thematic device of people comparing themselves to lions, as a concept of bravery. But it's not exactly subtle, it's people saying “Ooh, I'm a bit like a lion”. Which is why, as a teenager, I found it so difficult to write essays about this sort of thing, because I couldn't understand why teachers wanted me to point out the bleedin' obvious.

And this wasn't because I was particularly clever. I was just horribly, inconsolably nerdy.

Anyway. Sometimes a crap line about having forgotten a map is just a crap line about having forgotten a map. Taking things at face value is an appropriate response, it is engaging with the material on the level that the author intended it to be engaged with at.

And that sentence ended with two prepositions which must be some sort of record for illiteracy.

But what is the play about, I hear you cry (actually it sounds more like the roll of tumbleweeds, but never mind). Is it all about the forgetting and remembering of maps? Or is there more to it than that?

Well, what sets it up above the Henry VIs and Richard III is the depth of the characterisation. What sets it up above King John and Richard II is that Shakespeare manages to construct a decent story out of historical events, with character development, strong plotting and a satisfying climax. It's another knockout work, basically, pretty much in the same league as Julius Caesar.

What it is about, though? Well, Henry IV has taken over the throne, having deposed Richard II. Henry IV thinks the best way to Win Friends And Influence People is to be aloof, distant, unassailable and to maintain the mystery of the monarchy.

Unfortunately this hasn't won him many friends or much influence. In fact, there's a mad Welshman called Owen Glendower who really doesn't like him. And a mad Scotsman called Douglas. And a perky young Englishman called Hotspur.

Hotspur is ideal King material. He's courageous determined, and played by the subtle and restrained actor Tim Piggott-Smith. He's not an ham, Hotspur. (This sort of pun doesn't come across well written down. Or, indeed, when spoken. Tottenham Hotpsur. What is wrong with you people?)

Compare and contrast, if you will, Hotspur with the prince-in-waiting, Hal. Hal does not seem particularly brave or determined. He lives a life of drunken debauchery. He pretends to be a 'chav'. He goes to see strippers. He even dresses up as a Nazi, just for a laugh.

Hal spends all his time hanging around with Falstaff, a fat, drunken, cowardly but utterly lovable rogue. He's like half a Holmesian Double-Act. And with Falstaff there is an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, he is a well-rounded, beautifully-drawn and extremely funny character, who makes some good, pragmatic points. On the other hand, he is an excuse for fat actors to have their noses and cheeks painted red and lots of comedy blustering.

Falstaff does some funny stuff. There's the business in the first half, where he undertakes a highway robbery, only to be robbed by Hal and his chum Poins (in disguise), and where he makes up increasingly unbelievable stories about having been attacked by two, no four, no seven, no eleven bandits. There's the battle in the second half where he decides cowardice is the better part of valour and lies down in a ditch pretending to be dead. And there’s his scam to keep the money he’s been given to hire some crack troops by hiring dole scum instead.

But sometimes I can't help feeling he is a bit too much. Too big, too cartoony, too blustery. Too red in the nose and the cheeks.

Why is Hal hanging around with him? It's all part of a cunning plan. Hal intends to make a dramatic transformation, because he knows that the public will love him more as a reformed waster than as somebody has been a goody-two-shoes. It's that whole Bible thing of the sinner repenteth scoring more brownie points with God than he who hath not sinneth.

This is how Hal intends to Win Friends And Influence People. And that's what the play is about, contrasting the approaches taken by Henry IV, his son, and Hotspur. Do we want our leaders to be unattainable men of state, or approachable men of the people? Do we want our rulers to be people who have lived purer-than-pure lives, or people who have got out there, and lived a real life, who have made mistakes and roistered and doistered and, dare I say it, joistered like the rest of us?

The only problem is that when we learn that Hal is merely pretending to be a bad young man in order to impress people all the more when he transforms his ways, Hal comes across as rather calculating and unlikeable. Particularly in his treatment of Falstaff, which becomes a relationship of cynical necessity rather than friendship. Even when Hal pretends to be a 'man of the people' he’s still using his status to humiliate those around him, and his teasing of Falstaff is not so much the ribbing of two equals as a posh young man picking on someone less well off.

Nevertheless there is a sort of genuine respect and friendship between them - a sort of Tintin and Captain Haddock vibe - but how long can it last? Is it strong enough to make it all the way through Henry IV Part Two? Only time, and Henry IV Part Two, will tell.

Anyway, the story is that the three men with grudges - Hotspur, Glendower and Douglas - form an alliance to overthrow Henry IV. Henry IV offers them a peaceful settlement, but they turn it down. A battle ensues. Being Welsh, Glendower fails to turn up. Douglas goes berserk. Hotspur faces Hal in a dramatic confrontation. Hal kills him and runs off to tell his dad, and then Falstaff climbs out of his ditch, pokes his sword into Hotspur's leg and tries to take the credit for killing him.

All lots of fun. Maybe not quite as compelling as Richard III, but the best Historical so far.

Not many Doctor Who stars in this one. Hotspur's missus was played my Michele Dotrice, who I always found incredibly annoying because of the way, in Some Mothers Do 'Ave ‘Em, she would always drop a semitone as she said the word 'Frank', so it became a sort of whining, long-suffering 'Fra-ank.'. Ooh, that incredibly annoyed me.

Next up: Much Ado About Nothing

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Flesh And Blood

Review, 2006, BBC Shakespeare...


Tricky one, this. Contentious. Possibly offensive to modern sensibilities.

But I'll confront it head on.

The Merchant of Venice is a poof.

Antonio is, clearly, an uphill dorothy. He is a homosexualist. He is a majestic old queen. He sings along with the showtunes. He swishes the curtains. Antonio is gay, gay, gay for Bassanio.

The evidence? Well, Antonio spends a lot of his time down at the Rialto with sailors. He's Italian, even worse, he's Venetian. He hasn't got any money because he keeps on lending all his cash to pretty boy Bassanio. But when Bassanio comes crawling back to him asking for more money, Antonio can't help himself.

The only other possible explanation for it is that Antonio is some sort of father-figure for Bassanio, but that isn't in the play. Whereas Antonio going on about how much he loves Bassanio, and how well Bassanio fills his codpiece, and how firm and smooth his shoulders are, is.

I don't think Antonio is a negative depiction of a homosexualizer. He is persecuted for his gaiety, but he retains a quiet dignity and inner strength. Even when Bassiano decides that he needs some extra money in order to chat up a pretty young girl called Portia, Antonio gives him his blessing (and his Maestro card and pin number). After all, even after Bassiano and Portia are married Bassiano will still continue to be Antonio's special chum. They are modern like that.

So that's one thing.

Another way in which this play is possibly un-PC is in how it represents foreigners. Because the pretty young girl called Portia is being chatted up by lads of all flags. And, in true Mind Your Racism style, they are each stereotypical embodiments of their national characteristics. One after another they turn up, wearing ridiculous hats, doing their best to charm their way into her knickers.

The Neapolitan, for instance, is a country bumpkin, who probably sleeps with his horse. The Palatine is a city boy who is utterly miserable and has no sense of humour. Then there's the French guy, who is utterly unreliable. The English guy, who has travelled all the way to Italy without being able to speak any languages apart from English (and who is dressed like a bad tourist). The Scottish guy, meanwhile, ran out of money en route and had to borrow money off of the Englishman and the Frenchman. The German is drunk and boorish. The Spaniard is arrogant. And the Moroccan (i.e. the black guy) can't help going on about how handsome he is, i.e.

"I tell thee lady, this aspect of mine, hath fear'd the valiant. By my love, I swear, the best-regarded virgins of our clime have lov'd it too."

What he's doing there is he is implying he has a massive cock.

Fortunately all these guys attempts to win Portia's hand in marriage fail (more of which, later). Portia's quite glad that the Moroccan gets sent home because she doesn't like darkies.

So to recap. The lead character is a gay, and fancies the male romantic interest, who (at the very least) leads him on. The female romantic interest is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. Many of the jokes in the first couple of acts are about foreigners being stupid. And, worst of all


Now this is where it gets tricky. Because the depiction of Shylock is, well, schizophrenic. To begin with, he is definitely a villain in the Richard III mould. But, like Richard III, he is funny, clever, and very likeable. Shylock is also sympathetic. Bad shit happens to him. We understand why he does what he does, he’s never evil for its own sake (unlike Richard III), he has been (reluctantly) made a villain by circumstances. Or as he puts it

“If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better my instruction.”

As I said, horrible stuff happens to him. His daughter runs off to marry a Christian, taking most of his money and jewellery with her. When he is seen grieving about this in public, people mock him. Antonio spits on him and calls him names and tries to turn his friends against him. Salerio (played by John Rhys-Davies before he became a gnome) takes the piss out of him something chronic.

And, at the end of the play, Shylock loses half of his worldly goods and is forced, on pain of death, to renounce his faith.

This is moving stuff. You feel for him, you really do.

On the other hand, and this is where an odd sort of duality comes into play, there is nevertheless the fact that he sometimes does act like a racist caricature. For instance, when he is grieving in public, he seems to be more upset about the loss of his money than the loss of his daughter, and says he would prefer it if she was dead if it meant he could get his jewellery back.

The duality is twofold. God, did I just write that? I sound a total arse. Never mind. But duality one is the schizophrenic way the character is written. He's inconsistent, but this doesn't feel like inconsistent writing, more a depiction of a rounded, three-dimensional character. Duality two is in the performance. Because we live in modern times, the actor and director are working to underplay the racist aspect. Which means that some of the crowd-pleasing Semite-bashing is played ironically, as though Shylock is self-parodying his own Jewishness.

For instance, there is that fantastic speech where he goes on about “Does not a Jew bleed?” etc. As performed nowadays, this is heartrending stuff. It's a compelling argument. But nevertheless I can't help feeling that it is written as a comic monologue at the expense of Jewish self-justification. That is how it gets its power when it hits the 'revenge' punchline I quoted above - he's turning on the audience, who have been laughing at him up to this point.

Wonderfully, the BBC production gets this.

Nevertheless, though, what is fascinating about Shylock as a character is both that he is a three-dimensional character trapped inside a comedy stereotype and is, nowadays, played as a serious character, rather than a comic character.

I mean, he’s a funny guy. He cracks a very amusing joke in Act 4 about people who can't help pissing themselves whenever they hear bagpipes being played.

The danger with playing him seriously, though, is that it is his comic persona that makes him endearing. Without it, he comes across as simply embittered.

I don't know what the solution is. Maybe one day we won't feel uncomfortable about portraying a Jew as an avaricious money-lender and we can go, 'Okay, so Shylock is a bit of a money-grabbing bastard who happens to be Jewish, but that doesn't mean that this play is saying that all Jews are money-grabbing bastards, just that this one is, and has very good reasons for being the way he is'

Because this play isn't anti-Semitic. Not really. That is the one thing it fails at. Shylock is another example - the most glorious example - of Shakespeare being unable to write clichéd characters.

Indeed, Shylock takes over the play. By act 2 you've forgotten all about Antonio, the ostensible lead. I feel that Shakespeare got bored with Antonio, who barely appears in the rest of the play, and who loses his 'melancholy' to become little more than a cipher - and decided to concentrate on the far-more-interesting Shylock instead.

Similarly, Gratiano, who is written as a proper character in act 1, loses his idiosyncrasies in the rest of the play, and the clown double act of Launcelot and Gobbo thankfully all-but-vanishes halfway through (because Shylock is funnier than Gobbo, though Gobbo does have a wonderfully funny the-world's-worst-job-interview scene).

Anyway, if I haven't made it clear yet, I love this play. It's f*cking brilliant.

It shouldn't work, because structurally, it is a mess. It is two stories shoved together. Act 4 is courtroom drama. Act 5 is romantic comedy. It's all over the place, and yet somehow it all hangs together, so we can have, in the same scene, Shylock undergoing emotional agony alongside the cappuccino nonsense of boys not recognising their wives because they've dressed up as boys.

It is that messiness that makes it so compelling and fascinating. It does strange things, it is unpredictable, it is magical and romantic and complex, kind of like Venice itself.

And the bit about the quality of mercy is just gorgeous. You can sign me up for the religion that makes that line one of its constitution.

The story? Briefly. Bassanio needs some money to woo Portia. He borrows it off of Antonio, who in turn borrows it off the Jew, Shylock. Shylock gives Antonio a special offer - no compound interest, but if you don't pay up on time, I get my poundaflesh. Antonio agrees to this, because he has some investments which are due to pay up soon, and they draw up a contract.

Shylock is played by Warren Mitchell. Brilliantly. Bassanio is played, also rather well, by John Nettles. All those series of Bergerac and I never knew he could act.

His pockets bulging with money and tumescent anticipation, Bassanio heads off to see Portia. With him is Gratiano, another of Shakespeare's the-hero's-chum-who- talks-shit- all-the-time characters. Or, as Bassanio puts it

“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing... his reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.”

Gratiano is played by a young Kenneth Cranham, who, bizarrely, looks a bit like a fat REDACTED.

Portia is a lovely young girl (played here by Gemma Jones, who is very good but old enough to be Portia's mother) and she hangs out with her chum Nerissa (played by Susan Jameson, who really should’ve got to play Portia, but never mind).

Now, this is where it becomes fun. Portia's late dad prepared a special test for his daughter's suitors. It involves three boxes, one gold, one silver, one lead. Pick the right one and you win the girl. Pick the wrong one and you must swear an oath saying you will never have sex for the rest of your life.

That's the test all the boys from the different countries have been attempting and failing. Each of the boxes has a riddle written on it. It's a bit like 3-2-1, except without Chris Emmett, Caroline Monro or Louise English, currently appearing in Babes in the Wood, Croydon.

Anyway, it comes to Bassanio's turn to have a go at the boxes game. Which will he pick? By this point the audience knows which box is the right one and are all shouting out. “PICK LEAD YOU SILLY BASTARD!”

The lights suddenly go down as searchlights sweep across the studio. Bassanio is bathed in a blue glow. The music goes diddly-do, diddily-do, diddily-do. The suspense is electric.

Bassanio picks lead. Portia checks, “Is that your final answer?”

Bassanio nods. Portia waits for some moments, then crosses over to the centre of the room where a table waits with an old-fashioned black bakelite telephone.

She calls the banker. He is offering Bassanio three thousand ducats. Will Bassanio take it? Deal or no deal?

Bassanio sticks with the box made of lead.

We hear some orchestral stabs. DOOF! DOOF! DO-DOOF!

He opens the box. It contains a bit of paper saying “Congratulations! You have won Bully's special prize of Portia's hand in marriage!”

Everyone cheers. And I know I'm being sarky, but it is extraordinary how Shakespeare manages to ramp up the tension about whether Bassanio will pick the right box, and even when we know he's picked the right one we're still on the edge of our seats.

I mean, it's not as good as A Midsummer Night's Dream but Shakespeare was clearly on a roll at this point in his career. He really was bashing out the good stuff.

So that's the first three acts. All the boys and girls get married, and the girls give the boys wedding rings which they promise to wear forever. Remember this, it will become important later.

We then learn that Antonio's investments have all fallen through - they were all reliant on young, handsome sailors not running off with his money - and he has defaulted on his loan to Shylock. And Shylock wants his poundaflesh.

Act four, and it's courtroom drama. Shylock has a strong case. Antonio signed a contract, he agreed to the deal. All Shylock is doing is obeying the law in sticking to his side of the contract.

The audience jeers. BOO, JEW!

But who should turn up but Portia, dressed as a male hot-shot lawyer. She inspects the contract, and agrees that Shylock is absolutely right, he can have his poundaflesh. Shylock draws his knife and prepares to cut a lump out of Antonio's chest.

The audience collectively steps back in amazement. There's a bit of a crush at the back.

Bassanio (who is in the courtroom, but who doesn't recognise Portia, despite the fact that she's his wife) shouts out that he would rather his wife was dead if it meant that Antonio could live.

See, I said he was gay. Portia is none-too-pleased to hear this.

Nevertheless, she defends Antonio with alacrity. What she does is essentially she nails Shylock on the small print. The contract stipulates a poundaflesh, but doesn't allow for any bloodletting, and if Shylock accidentally cuts slightly more than a pound, or slightly less, then he’s in breach of contract.

Shylock knows he's f*cked and decides that he doesn't want his poundaflesh after all. However, Portia is one f*cking hot-shot lawyer (and no longer the wet, flannelly drip of a girl she was in the first half of this play) and she proves that Shylock has broken the law by attempting to murder Antonio, therefore all his money is forfeit.

The audience cheers. And throws bits of rotten lettuce at the Jew.

Shylock pleads for mercy and gets it. He gets to keep half his money - if he agrees to giving the other half to his daughter's husband, and converts to Christianity.

Now, to our modern ears, that's one hell of a bummer. But to a Christian audience back in the 16th century, this would be a happy ending. As far as they were concerned, this would mean Shylock would have been saved. It just doesn't come over that way in the 21st century.

Bassanio is so grateful that Antonio isn't going to be killed that he speaks with Portia (thinking she's a male lawyer, remember) and says 'Is there anything I can do to repay you?' She says, 'Yeah, give us that ring.' 'What ring?' That ring, the one on your finger!' 'Oh that ring!'

And so Bassanio gives Portia his wedding ring (and later, Gratiano similarly gives Nessina his wedding ring).

Act 5, and the boys return to the island where the girls live. The girls manage to get back just in time and change out of their transvestite outfits to greet the boys as they get off the boat.


It's all very playful, and heart-warming, as the boys get one over on the boys and treat them a well-deserved lesson in something or other. Eventually the girls own up to their plan, and the play sort of ends with a huge climactic barrage of jokes about the imminent sexual athletics that the boys and girls plan to get up to for the next couple of days. And why not?

And Antonio goes off and has a wank or something, presumably.

You can watch it on Youtube here.

Next up : Henry IV Part One

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The King Has Lost His Crown

Another review of a BBC Shakespeare which, if you couldn’t tell from reading it, dates from 2006.


There are certain subjects that get more interesting the more you find out about them. They are like bottomless wells of interest; Doctor Who, the Beatles, David Bowie, art, religion, history, politics and collecting nude appearances by REDACTED in film and TV.

Shakespeare is another such bottomless well. Or bottomless 'Will'!! There is always something more to dig up, and each discovery opens up another three or four seams. For instance, yesterday I visited the Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was rather weird, seeing virtually every single piece of documentary evidence for the man's existence gathered together in one room. There isn't a great deal of it, to be honest. Bit overpriced.

Couple of things struck, though. How much Ben Jonson looks like Tom Baker, for instance. And I'm now undecided about Love's Labour's Won. It's like trying to decide whether Vengeance on Varos is any good or not, as soon as I've convinced myself to think one thing, I start thinking the opposite. There is clear, printed evidence that the play existed in some sense, and was published. And Love's Labour's Lost seems to be open-ended. But, if that is the case, why, when Shakespeare revived Love's Labour's Lost later in his career, did he not bother with its sequel? Was it because it was crap? Seems unlikely,. Maybe it was because it had been reworked titled as All's Well That Ends Well - which would be interesting, in that Having A Decent Ending was considered such a unique selling point that it was mentioned in the show's title.

But it was published, so maybe it will still turn up in [WATLING] Hong Kong [/WATLING]. And a copy of Cardenio seems to have been knocking around in the mid 18th century, maybe a print was 'bicycled' to Iran or somewhere. Get Levine on the case.

Cardenio was Shakey's re-telling on Don Quixote. And seems to be another victim of the curse of Quixote, that scuppered Orson Welles' and Terry Gilliam's film adaptations, and which also sounded the death-knell for Nik Kershaw's riddle-mongering pop career.

Lots of other top facts. The Shakey was once accused of threatening GBH to his neighbours in Southwark. The reason why Shakey doesn't bother to introduce characters properly is that the convention in those days was for the actors to wear name badges (or rather, name scrolls). And one of the Shakey's first plays was a version of Hamlet. Or at least a play with a ghost in it and a speech that began 'To be or not to be'. Well, I thought that was a top fact.

I've reattempted Peter Ackroyd's biography, just skipping to read about the plays, which is enjoyable because he intelligently comes to many of the same conclusions as me. Apparently the guy in Love's Labour's Lost who talks like he's had a thesaurus rammed up his arse is a parody of the guy who wrote one of the first dictionaries, John Florio. And he points out all the continuity errors in Measure for Measure too. But to be honest he lacks my insight.

Anyway, onto King John. In which the lead - and, dare I say it, eponymous - role of King John is played by Leonard Rossiter.

Now, if I had to compile a top 10 of actors-who-should-have-been-in-Doctor-Who, Len would undoubtedly be at the top of the list. It would be quite difficult to think of another 9 names, just because every other bloody actor has been in Doctor Who at some point, or, if they are still alive, are still quite liable to do so, what with all the stars turning up in the audios and the new series featuring the likes of Ron Cook and Richard Wilson.

But it's a shame Len was never in Doctor Who. He could have been in a Troughton story, playing the guy on the brink of a nervous breakdown who doesn't want his weather control machine to be switched off. Watching The Year of the Sex Olympics, you can see how great he looks in a futuristic boiler suit. And he was in 2001 as well.

Can anyone else think of actors who should have been in Doctor Who? I'm sure we can compile a top 10 between us. The only rule is that they have to be dead so there is no chance of them turning up in future. And no you can't vote for Mr Pastry.

Somewhat surprisingly, King John doesn't feature his famous apocryphal contemporary Robin Hood. The closest Shakey got to getting down with the Hood was As You Like It. Hoodmania was sweeping the nation in the early 1600s, everyone was dying their tights bright green, and every play had to feature some brigands slapping their thighs in a woodland hide-out and a friar hurriedly crossing themselves after knocking someone over the head with an earthenware pot.

Incidentally, while I'm digressing, I was opining the other day about how Kenneth Branagh seems to have stopped doing Shakespeare movies. Except I discovered he hadn't, it's just that he had done Love's Labour's Lost and it was so terrible no cinema ever bothered to show it. Apparently he's now doing As You Like It which is (subject to re-examination) nearly as bad, but at least it will have Brian Blessed in it being SHOUTY.

Speaking of Brian Blessed, I've just finished I Claudius. Much as I love to rail against accepted opinion like some sort of wild critical buccaneer, I have to agree with everyone else and it is brilliant. That said, the first few episodes are one f*ckbert of a chore to get through but things really hot up once Augustus is out of the way. It's kind of like The West Wing in togas, The West Wing being another show that I have finally got into at around the point when everyone else has given up. It's all part of my campaign to self-educate myself (I'm not really qualified to self-educate anyone else) with something marginally more worthwhile than pop music and TV trivia. That said, pop music and TV trivia remain priority one.

Look, it's Tom Baker!

Anyway, back to King John.

The BBC production. The sets. Oh my giddy arse! Even Jackanory Playhouse was never this bad. It's not attempting to be realistic but it just looks ghastly. A big, Playschool-style illustration of a castle is used to represent Algiers. It's as if the play is being performed inside a crèche. I hesitate to imagine the actors' reactions when presented with this scenery. "You expect us to f*cking act... against this? We're all going to look like prizewinning tits!" One can scarcely imagine how the sets could have been achieved more cheaply. Come back, The Pirate Planet, all is forgiven! The sets for this production make Time-Flight look like Ben Hur.

It's like that kind of double-take you get when you watch Time and the Rani. "This was actually shown on television? When people might have been watching?”

That said, it does improve in the second half, as they turn down the lights and we reconvene to a marginally less unconvincing woodland.

The story concerns the Rise and Fall of King John. He has recently been coronated. Coronationed. Crowned. King John is a weakwilled, miserly, feeble, cowardly, wheedling, skulking and conniving man. He's a liar, but he's also profoundly stupid and a terrible liar. He's not terribly sympathetic as characters go. He's not clever enough to be a Richard III, he's a Richard III wannabe.

He's dominated by his mother, Queen Elinor. The merest thought of her summons up an amusing hippo flashback.

I joke, but Leonard Rossiter is supremely brilliant as the King. In fact, everyone in this show is fantastic. The acting is so great it almost distracts you from the sets.

King John is asked to settle a dispute between the Falconbridge brothers. They are arguing over who gets to inherit their father's lands, with the younger brother saying that he is due the inheritance on account of the other brother being illegitimate.

And who plays the younger brother? If it isn't Gil Chesterton! Edward Hibbert!

King John asks the younger brother who the elder brother's dad is. It turns out his dad was Richard I (aka Richard the Lionhearted, aka Couer-De-Leon, aka Geoffrey Plantaganet). Fortunately Richard I isn't in this play.

King John settles the dispute. The younger brother can have his father's fens and spinnys (and romp in them when the twilight bathes the hedgerows like a lambent flame). And the elder brother can work for the King, as his right-hand man.

I say right-hand man. He's more of an 'enforcer'. A hard-man. If you were to mount a production now, you'd want Ross Kemp to play the part. Because the character is known only as


Unfortunately he's not played by Ross Kemp, he's played by Bob out of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, but never mind. He is a bit of a headcase. He sings in praise of total war, in the name of Christ our Lord, put the known world to the sword and I've never met a girl like you be-fore..

Anyway, this is all preamble. It turns out Richard I had another son, called Arthur. He has allied himself with King Philip of France in a bid to gain the throne. Oddly, he has also made an alliance with a chap called Austria, who killed Richard I.

Austria is played by Gordon Kaye in an implausibly large beard. So now we have Rising Damp, Frasier and Allo Allo. This is situation comedy crossover nirvana.

The two opposing sides meet outside the town of Algiers. King John brings his domineering mother, Elinor. Did I mention that he's a bit of a mother's boy? Well, he is.

There then follows rather a long argument between King John and King Philip. Eventually they come up with a compromise which means they won't have to go to war. The deal is that the French Prince Lewis marries Richard I's daughter Princess Blanch, and King John gives the French back a whole load of their towns as a dowry. It's a good deal, and King Philip accepts. They shake hands, it's a done treaty.

But how will Prince Lewis woo Princes Blanch? King John suggests he burn the wood of the "love tree" and waft it beneath her nose to send her into an amorous frenzy...

Except that who should turn up at the wedding but Cardinal Pandulph, a meddlesome priest. What he does, he throws his papal crook into the bicycle wheel of diplomacy. King John hasn't appointed the pope's choice of Archbishop of Canterbury, and so Cardinal Pandulph excommunicates him, and threatens to excommunicate King Philip if he doesn't break his treaty with King John.

So, thanks to this shit-stirring stick-his-nose-in-where-it-isn't-wanted Catholic cleric, bloody war ensues. He persuades the French to invade England. The English capture Arthur and return with him to England. The BASTARD kills Austria.

Back in England, King John has a dilemma. Whilst Arthur remains alive, there will be some doubt over the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. If only Arthur should meet with an unfortunate accident...

He mentions this to his second hench-man, Hubert (his main hench-man, the BASTARD, being off hailing some taxes).

(Note: It was those verysame taxes that led to the Magna Carta being signed, at the bottom. But this isn't mentioned in this play. Nor is the doppleganger knocking about up North with a Frenchman with an atrocious accent. I'm sure if the real King John had heard about it he would not have had proofed)

Hubert (played by John Thaw) goes to kill Arthur but decides the kid is just too damn cute to kill. He decides to save the kid's life, and returns to the King and spins him a yarn.

Over in France, offstage, battle rages. Elinor dies. This seriously upsets King John. What's he going to do, now he hasn't got his mum to tell him what to do?

From this point on, the key changes up a tone and becomes rather fun. It's still nowhere near as good as Richard III but it's certainly up there with the best bits of the Henry VIs and Richard II.

Hearing about this 'murder' of young Arthur, the English Lords lose faith in King John and decide to join the invading French army. King John then has a bit of a moan about how much he wishes Arthur wasn't dead after all. He was such a cute kid, he didn't deserve to die.

Hubert clears his throat. 'Well, it's funny you should say that,' he says. 'Because as it happens I didn’t kill him after all.'

Result! King John is delighted and does a little happy dance. Now the English Lords will come back to him! All is saved!

Meanwhile, Arthur has got a bit bored with being locked up. He decides to climb the slippery, icy battlements and practise his tap-dancing. He meets with an unfortunate accident...

The English Lords discover his broken body at the foot of the castle walls. It looks Arthur has been murdered!

It isn't King John's day. The English Lords join up with the French, and the English army (led by the BASTARD) prepare to fight them.

In desperation, King John calls up Cardinal Pandulph and tells him he can have his choice of Archbishop of Canterbury after all. Cardinal Pandulph agrees, and dis-excommunicates the King. To celebrate, the King holds another coronation. Some people might say this is gilding the lily, but that's just the sort of thing some people would say.

In return, Cardinal Pandulph is to go to the French and tell them not to invade England after all. The French Prince Lewis is not inclined to listen, and points out that this was all the Cardinal's clever idea to begin with and it's a bit late for him to change his mind now.

The BASTARD turns up and bad-mouths everyone. 'Prince Lewis - you're a slaaaaag!' 'English Lords - you're all slaaaags!'

War ensues. But it's a bit of a rubbish battle, to be honest. It's more a competition to see who can lose first. Both sides retreat, and end up losing half their soldiers due to inclement weather. What you might call a cock-up on the organisation front.

The English Lords decide to change sides and join up with the English again. The French decide to f*ck off back to France. King John's son observes, 'I've never really been a war person.'

So it's good news for King John. He decides to go for a meal to celebrate. Unfortunately this is poisoned by a Catholic monk. So for the last act, King John is left regretting a visit to the Dodgy Italian.

It's actually quite moving. He's delirious at the end, in a fever, and finally pegs it when the BASTARD turns him to tell him how badly fought the war has just been. King John dies, and we learn that he is to be replaced  by Bruce Forsyth,. The ultimate indignity. That is the tragedy of King John.

And that's it. All in all, not too bad, once you get over the sets and the slightly wordy first half. But it feels to me like a step backwards, as though this play, with its focus on plot rather than character, is an early work, like the Henry VI's. Even the most well-drawn characters are two-dimensional, with King John nowhere near as beautifully drawn as Richard III. The language too is workmanlike and functional and the poetry never seems to express any great depth of emotion. This play isn't the work of a genius, it's a decent bit of hack-work.

The other odd thing about it is that whilst the story contains three 'baddies' - King John, King Philip and Cardinal Pandulph - we never get much of a sense of any of them being particularly bad. Apparently this play is a rewrite of a much more anti-Catholic piece, and I can't help feeling that it feels oddly neutered. The result is that we have characters doing - or contemplating doing - terrible things, without the characters ever seeming quite bad enough for it to be convincing. I know Shakey may have been an old-time Catholic, was reluctant to write something which portrayed the faith in a bad light, but all this blurring of shades of grey is ultimately unsatisfactory.

And Ben Jonson used to get stopped in the street and mistaken for Shirley Williams. Fact.

After Love's Labour's Lost, and this, I really need a decent bit of Shakey to perk myself up. Fortunately next is The Merchant Of Venice, which should be an absolute stormer. I hear that Shylock's just been to the everything-for-a-pound shop...

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Love Is Lost

Another review from 2006; the BBC Shakespeare production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Having since seen the Kenneth Branagh film version, I can happily confirm that that is even worse.

Love's Labour's Lost

One of the few points of interest about this inconsequential, half-baked and thoroughly second-rate play is its downbeat ending. The various boys and girls have got it together - and then news comes in that the Princess's dad has just died. The festivities halt, and the play takes on an abruptly melancholic, disheartened, back -to-Earth-with-a-bump feel. Or, as Armado describes it:

"The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo"

The play then just stops. The girls go home, and the boys resolve to spend the next year in penance for a spot of oath-breaking. The promise is made that they will all meet again in a year's time, after a suitable period of mourning, when festivities will resume.

Unfortunately we don't have that story. Love's Labour's Won has been lost. But Love's Labour's Lost is clearly only half a story, lacking resolution or unity. It is only half a play, the run up the hill in anticipation of a long run down again. There was certainly more to come.

Another possible point of interest is how egregiously poor the play is. Its storyline is both cluttered and simplistic. Four boys - King Ferdinand of Navarre, plus his mates Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine - all decide that they are Not Getting Enough Work Done, and so all take an oath to forswear romantic attachments for the next three years. No ladies are to be allowed within a mile of their court at Navarre.

Unfortunately Ferdinand has forgotten he’s expecting a visit from the King of France's daughter, and her three female friends Rosaline, Maria and Katherine. She's due to see Ferdinand about some money owed to him by the King of France.

Ferdinand refuses the Princess entry to Navarre, but lets her camp in the field outside the city walls. He goes to see her there, and of course he falls in love with her, Berowne falls in love with Rosaline, Longaville falls in love with Maria and Dumaine falls in love with Katherine. So far, so repetitive.

All the boys write love letters. Berowne gives his letter for Rosaline to a servant, Costard, to deliver. Costard has also been asking to deliver a letter from Don Adriano de Armado (an idiot servant with delusions of learning) to the busty wench of his desiring, Jaquenetta.

Costard, of course, gets the letters mixed up. A microcosm of hilarity ensues.

The boys all discover that they have all broken their oaths, and decide not to bother with the no-romantic-attachments rule from now on. They decide to get woo-ing, and send the four girls accessories to wear, along with their best attempts at poetry.

Then they hit upon a plan. They will visit their girls whilst disguised as Russians wearing masks - the girls will not suspect a thing - and chat them up without technically breaking any oaths.

The girls hear about this plan and decide to also don disguises, and switch accessories, so the boys end up chatting up the wrong girls! The boys put on funny Russian accents and the girls all tell them ta but not ta. Another microcosm of hilarity ensues.

Then the boys sod off, remove their Cossack cossies, and return, where the girls explain about their plan to take the piss out of the boys trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

And that's it.

The problems with the play are firstly, four boys and four girls is far too many. They are so interchangeable you barely notice when they are interchanged.

Secondly, the humour. It's all quite hard-going rhetoric and poetic irony, as one person makes a simile and the other one picks it to pieces. As Neil once said, most metaphors don't bear close examination. There is some amusement to be found, but it is hard work to pick the humorous bones from the trout of rapid-fire exchange of 16th century circumlocution.

Thirdly, the subplots. They have virtually nothing to do with the main plot. There's the subplot about Don Adriano de Armado, Jaquenetta and Costard. Armado and Costard are both quite funny - two fools, one who knows how stupid he is, one who thinks he is clever. But their plotline just dribbles on.

The other subplot concerns the 'Worthies', a bunch of high-minded, pompous pseudo-intellectuals of Navarre. The story just grinds to a halt whenever they come on. Now, some of their scenes are quite fun - I love the character of Holofernes, who is just desperate to show off how clever he is all the time. He is John Sessions. He constantly lapses into latin, or makes classical allusions, and indulges in frequent verbosity, sesquipedalian, magniloquence, and pompous hyperbole. And there is one lovely bit where, in true Sessions style, he improvises a poem about a deer. A bloody awful poem, full of incredibly tortuous and unfunny puns based around the letter 'L' being 50 in roman numerals. And all his mates applaud his smug cleverness.

The third point of interest about this play, though, is that the Worthies are basically the Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just not done as well. Holofernes is a proto-Quince. Armado (who joins the Worthies at the end, without explanation) is a proto-Bottom. And half-way through the play the Worthies are asked to put on a theatrical performance, which then appears in the final act as a 'funny bit' for all the lovers to sit and watch. With the same arguments about interpretation and prologues as in AMND.

And when they perform the play, it is pretty much the same. The Worthies have decided to stage a series of monologues of figures from classical literature. The audience heckles, and the performers lose their places. The guy playing Pompey the Great announces himself as Pompey the Big. The guy playing Alexander the Great gets stage fright and runs offstage in terror.

Basically, it is exactly the same ideas as in A Midsummer Night's Dream - just not done as well. But it would seem to imply that this play pre-dates AMND, as Shakey saw the flaws in his earlier work and addressed them. So where the Worthies feel like a gratuitous addition to LLL, the Mechanicals are integrated into the plot of AMND. And the play in AMND reflects the themes of the play, whereas the performance in LLL has nothing to do with the themes of LLL.

But there is amusement to be had, if you dig deep. The Worthies' pretentiousness is quick hard work, though, as having deliberately arcane language filtered through the already occasionally quite arcane language of Shakespeare can lead to whole scenes going by without anyone knowing what the f*ck is supposed to be going on (indeed, there is some evidence that the person who put together the first folio couldn’t follow it and thus included two versions of the same speech).

There is also some fun in recitations of bad poetry - the stuff the boys knock out isn't too bad, if a little blokey, whilst Armado's poem to Jaquenetta is deliberately painfully inept in its barrage of rhetorical questions and obscure classical allusions, and Holofernes' improvised poem is a delight in its sheer, clever-clever John Sessions unfunnyness. If I was an English teacher then I would set an essay on compare-and-contrast the use of bad poetry in LLL to illustrate character.

On the other hand, there are endless boring monologues with the boys questioning breaking their oaths and a load of waffle about 'love', particularly in the first two acts.

There are also too many classical allusions. One or two is clever. Use them all the time and it just looks like Shakey's in danger of becoming as pretentious as the characters he’s lampooning.

All in all, though, I haven't many kind words to say about this play. It's quite short, but it really, really doesn't work, it is unsatisfactory in every respect, and feels rushed, perfunctory and unfinished. The story is boring, illogical, wafer-thin, and just doesn't work.

Not many good people in this one, either. David Warner makes the best of being miscast as Armado, and that's it.

I have a feeling it may be Shakey's least pukka comedy. I hope so. I'm not sure I can cope with one worse than this.

Next: The Life and Death of King John

Monday, 27 January 2014

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet is not a tragedy. Or at least half of it isn't. Up until mid-way through Act III, Romeo & Juliet is an out-and-out comedy. It's sunny and breezy, silly and joyful, young and romantic. It's very much in the mould of Two Gentlemen Of Verona, but with the greater wit and poetic invention of A Midsummer Nights' Dream.

I went to Verona once. Nice place. You can go and visit the balcony, supposedly the balcony from the famous balcony scene. Except there never was a famous balcony scene in real life, not in Verona. But anyway, there it is, you can go upstairs and stand on it and 'Wherefor art thou?' if you like. It's in a small square or piazza. There's a statue of Juliet there, and the tradition is to place your hand on the statue's right breast for luck. SHE'S ONLY SUPPOSED TO BE FOURTEEN but nevertheless this is acceptable and in no way paedo or noncey. Actually so many hands have felt up Juliet's booby over the years that it has taken rather a shine.

The small square or piazza is also heaving with tourists, as you might expect, and the other tradition - aside from the family-friendly recreational groping of an effigy of a barely pubescent girl - is to write messages of love on the walls. Every surface of the walls is covered with centuries of graffiti, some painted, some scratched, but now, in order to avoid further damage, the walls are covered with post-it notes and flutter like a horde of DayGlo moths. I couldn't help feeling that there was an ironic juxtaposition taking place, the act of making some sort of indelible romantic commitment on a post-it note .

Anyway, Romeo & Juliet, like Two Gentlemen of Verona, is set in Verona and concerns nauseating teenagers falling in love at the drop of a neckline. That's the odd thing about adolescence - there is a sort of amplification of the emotions, and everything is a matter of life and death, either incredibly important or incredibly insignificant and anyway you wouldn't understand I haaaate you I haaaate you I haaaate you. It's all embarrassingly disproportionate and, in retrospect, laughably naive, but nevertheless you try telling that to a teenager and they will just go up to their room in a petulant sulk and listen to Morrissey because he's the only one who Truly Understands My Pain.

Our play opens with Romeo. He has been spending a lot of time upstairs in his room with the curtains drawn listening to Morrissey. He's either sulking or wanking or both. He's in love with a girl called Rosalind, of which you will hear no more later. She is not in this play.

Actually it doesn't open with him at all. It opens with a prologue, with the Chorus introducing the play and telling us everything that will happen, how it will happen, and how it will all end. It's kind of like a narration for the intellectually impaired, like Howard Da Silva used to do to explain the complexities of Doctor Who to Americans. It's patronising, intrusive and unnecessary, and I think it may have been an 'addition' to the play - possibly just something they did on odd evenings when there were a lot of American tourists in.

Interestingly the prologue says that the following play will last 2 hours. It doesn't. It lasts 3 hours. Either he is lying, or there is something afoot here. I have a theory about this. I think the play, as performed back in the 16th century, probably did last 2 hours. But the published version was based on a rehearsal script - an unedited version - and so has a much longer running time. There is also evidence of Shakespeare adding extra scenes to his early plays to bump-them-up to proper play length - the totally superfluous prologue of The Taming of the Shrew, for instance. And the front cover of the 1605 printing of Hamlet - I have a picture of it in a book - says

'Newly imprinted and enlarged to almoft as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie.'

In other words, an extended director's cut. And, like those bloody extra-long Lord of the Rings films, it includes absolutely everything that should have been left on the cutting room floor, without any discrimination. And I think Romeo & Juliet may have been 'bonus scene'-d up a little as well.

Anyway, Romeo's up in his room, wanking. Two families, Montagues and Capulets. You know the drill, it's West Side Story but with fewer maracas. They are not getting on for some not-particularly-well-explored reason.

Romeo meets up with two of his Montague mates, Benvolio and Mercutio. Benvolio seems like a nice guy. Mercutio is a bit of a hot-head, and is constantly talking and making dirty jokes. He is the Hero's Mate Who Talks Shit All The Time. (Another one of these will turn up in The Merchant of Venice). As a character, he's very funny and likeable and one of the reasons why the first half of this play is so clearly a comedy.

Another one of the reasons is the Nurse. She's looking after Juliet, a Capulet girl. Nursey is basically the character from Blackadder II, a sad old woman with an udder fixation. She is obsessed with bodily functions, sex, tits, and breast feeding in particular. She will not stop going on about her milky expressions. Eventually Lady Capulet has to tell her to shut up.

Juliet's dad, Mr Capulet, is organising a big party so that Juliet can check out Paris, a bloke her dad thinks she should marry. Elsewhere in the town Romeo learns that Rosalind (who is not in this play) will also be at the party, so he arranges to attend the bash with his mates Benvolio and Mercutio. It's a fancy dress thing so they can go in disguise. Benvolio's plan. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

Something goes wrong. Romeo meets Juliet at the party. One of them has a sudden rush of blood to the head, another of them has a sudden rush of blood in the other direction. It's true love. Romeo immediately forgets all about Rosalind, because, let's face it, she's not in this play. But she is possibly my favourite character in Shakespeare so far. She’s so enigmatic.

Next up it's the balcony bit. You know the balcony bit. It turns up in sketch shows whenever they can't think of anything else to do. It'll probably be in Swinging quite soon. But I think all of those parodies of the balcony scene have been getting it wrong down the years. Because the balcony scene isn't supposed to be serious and heartfelt. Or at least, that's not how it's written. It's written in a silly, sympathetic manner, but is also taking the piss. Because whilst we are supposed to warm to Romeo & Juliet, we do so because we are laughing at them and their naivety. Their conversation is full of stuff which is them trying to sound witty and worldly, but which is actually soppy and daft. It is that teenage telephone conversation that will never end. Each time you think Romeo will leave, there's always one more 'Goodbye' 'Goodbye' 'Love you,' 'Love you', 'You leave the balcony scene first', 'No, you leave the balcony scene first' 'Okay, let's leave it together. One two three.' 'Are you still here?' 'Yes' 'Me too' 'Love you' Love you' and so on.

What is important here, though, is that Romeo and Juliet are funny. They may not match the wit of that bickering couple in Much Ado About Nothing but they are nevertheless a lot of fun. This scene is supposed to be OTT in its emotions, because that's what teenagers are like, and it's what makes them amusing and endearing. It's love at its most unworldly, and yet to hear them speak, you think the world is about to end.

And it will. Barely a scene passes in this play without someone having a premonition of how it will end. This gets irritating. I know there's probably some good dramatic irony reason why half the characters are f*cking clairvoyant but if I was editing this f*cker that would be the second thing I'd take out, after I'd taken out the prologue. It just stretches credibility.

Anyway, Romeo and Juliet arrange to meet up, using the Nurse as a go-between. All lovely, funny stuff. They meet up at Friar Lawrence's place and he marries them. To each other. But they don't shag.

All is going swimmingly. I'll stress for a third time - up until this point all has been comedy, comedy, comedy. And for this play to work, it has to have felt like a comedy up until this point, because the power of what follows, the frisson of knowing what is to come, relies totally on the first half being a laugh riot. Play the first half straight, play the whole thing as a tragedy, and you're buggered - you have nowhere to go. It's all about the contrast of styles, it's doing something clever and literary like what Robert Shearman would do.

Back in the streets of Verona and Benvolio and Mercutio are arsing about. Mercutio is still talking endless streams of shit. Romeo turns up, feeling smug about His Big Secret. And then who should happen along but Tybalt - a Capulet and a twat. Tybalt picks on Romeo (he saw him gatecrashing the fancy dress party and does not approve) but Romeo, being loved-up, doesn't rise to the bait. Instead it's Mercutio who gets drawn into a tussle with Tybalt. Tybalt kills him.

Now this is the big moment. This is where comedy flips into tragedy. It should be a massive, gear-crunching wrench of tone for the audience. Because the funny guy, the guy we all liked, the guy who was like Xander, has just been killed. It's a f*ckoff big twist.

And suddenly the laughter stops and everything is serious. What was a lark is a lark no longer. (More on larks later). This is something that Shakespeare was shit-hot at - the jarring change of tone for dramatic effect. Douglas Adams raves about it in The Unfolding Text.

Anyway, Tybalt has killed Romeo's bezzer mate - so Romeo kills him back. Oh f*ck, thinks the audience, this is not going to turn out well. And it doesn't. Luckily the guy in charge of Verona is lenient and banishes Romeo instead of ordering his execution. This doesn't please the Montagues, who are baying for his blood. It probably doesn't please the Capulets too much either.

It also doesn't please Juliet when she hears about it. God, you should hear her go on. Blah blah blah blah blah. There is pages and pages of this guff, oh I feel bad about Romeo, oh I feel bad about Tybalt, should I feel worse about Romeo or about Tybalt? WHATEVER!

She instructs her nurse - the one obsessed with lactation - to go find Romeo and see what's going on. Because, you see, this play is set several years before the introduction of text messaging. Indeed, if anything, it serves as an advertisement for mobile phone technology. Because none of the tragedy that ensues would have ensued if Romeo and Juliet had had an O2 one-to-one.

Romeo is also none too pleased about being banished. He goes a bit mad with self-pity. Both he and Juliet have a bit of a death-wish, and it is all that Friar Lawrence can do to stop them falling on their own daggers. Then the Nurse arrives and tells Romeo that Juliet has been a bit upset recently. This is good news to Romeo - and he decides to take advantage of this and shimmies up Juliet's drainpipe. They shag.


Next morning, and Juliet and Romeo wake up amidst some seriously stained bedsheets. Juliet starts going on about larks. She doesn't want this night to end, basically. Romeo isn't so sure - never mind lighting another candle, he's barely got a half a wick left.

Enter Juliet's mum. Juliet's mum has some good news - Juliet is to marry Paris next Thursday. You remember Paris, he was at the fancy dress party. Didn't say much, but that's because he didn't have any lines. But he was definitely there, oh yes, and anyone who says that Shakespeare forgot to put him in that scene is a liar. He was there, standing at the back in the trousers.

But Juliet is already married to Romeo! But she can't tell her mum that! It's like something from Home & Away, isn't it? Juliet tells her mum she can't marry Paris. Her dad isn't too pleased to hear this either. Pure soap opera, you may cry.

Act IV, and Juliet goes to have a chat with Friar Lawrence. Should she kill herself now, or wait until her parents find out she is married and then get killed? But Friar Lawrence has a better idea. What if Juliet takes some drugs that will make her look dead, when in fact she isn't!

You may recall the Master using a similar plan in The Deadly Assassin. Or Jack Bauer, at the end of Season 4 of 24. It's an enduring theme. Relevant.

Juliet's body will then be placed in the Montague family tomb. Where she will lie, until the next day when she will wake - and Romeo will be waiting for her. And then together they can run off and start a new life together. It's a good plan. NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG.

Haven't we been here before with Pyramus and Thisbe?

To begin with, all goes to plan. Juliet takes the medicine and is discovered the next morning. There is a lot of 'oh, lamentable day'-ing. Her mum isn't too chuffed either. Then Friar Lawrence turns up and says 'Ooh, dead is she? Better move her body to the family tomb then. Ahm.'

There's a lovely bit here from Juliet's dad here where he says 'Hang on - don't cancel the wedding celebrations! Just tell the caterers to do a cold buffet and get the band to play something sad.' Well, he's not going to get his money back, is he?

Act V and Romeo is bumming around in Mantua. He gets the news that Juliet is dead. What does he do? He decides to kill himself. First he will buy some poison, then he will visit Juliet in her tomb and then he will take the poison and die with her. Because he's romantic like that.

This is where it all gets rather tense.

Friar Lawrence learns that the messenger he had sent to tell Romeo that it was all a cunning plan hasn't delivered the message. IF ONLY THEY HAD HAD MOBILE PHONES.

So this could go either way. If Juliet wakes up before Romeo gets to her... then he'll discover her alive, and won't take the poison. If the Friar can get to Romeo before he takes the poison... then they can wait for Juliet to wake up and everything will be fine.

But unfortunately Romeo arrives early. He bumps into Paris outside the tomb, and there's a bit of a fracas, which escalates to a kafuffle, followed by a brouhaha, and before you know it he's gone and stabbed Paris. That's two Montagues he's killed in as many days. It's habit-forming.

Romeo enters the tomb and discovers Juliet, apparently dead. So he kills himself. Juliet wakes up - and the Friar-man rushes in from the pouring rain. The Friar rushes out again (not totally sure about the plotting here, Bill) and Juliet kills herself. Then various Montagues and Capulets rush in and the Friar explains about what has been going on, with the wedding at whatnot, and Mr Montague and Mr Capulet settle their differences.

And there you have it. An absolutely terrific play. A huge, gorgeous romantic swell of emotion. An emotional rollercoaster. Fast, funny, economic, rich, deep, fruity, memorable, poetic.

Moving on.

The BBC production.

Oh f*cking dear.

Oh f*cking dear oh dear oh dear.

This was the first in their Shakespeare series. It has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. It still looks cheap. It looks like the f*cking city out of The Pirate Planet.

This play has had lots of very good actors in it. Many of them are not very good in it. It is badly lit, badly scored, with stupid costumes and is utterly, atrociously, awfully directed.

Bear in mind some of my earlier points. For this play to work, the first half needs to be funny. This is crucial. Mercutio needs to be likeable. The Nurse needs to be likeable.

Nope. None of that here. It's all serious. It's all deathly boring. It's all performed with no subtlety, no nuance, no insight.

Another example. Balcony scene. Romeo espies Juliet in her see-through shorty-nightie and the first thing that grabs his attention is her eyes. That is not the problem. The problem is that Romeo then talks about Juliet speaking silently and looking upward to heaven. Clearly he is referring to the fact that she is saying her prayers.

But not in this play. No, she's just staring into space with a vacant, doleful, listless expression.

This isn't the only instance of this. When Juliet takes the poison, she then hallucinates that she can see Tybalt beckoning her to the afterlife. Not in this production, though. In this production she gets the hallucination and then takes the poison.

It's utterly ham-fisted. And that's before we get to the performances. Now, I don't know how much of the blame to put on the actors - I think the problem is that the director wasn't telling them what to do. But the performances are all over the place, tone-wise. There's no consistency.

We have a star-studded cast. Many of them are very good. Some of them are surprisingly good. But, well, one example. Anthony Andrews. Or, as I shall call him from now on, Anthony f*cking Andrews. Christ he is bad. What he is doing is the performance of someone who is desperate to get singled out for a mention in the review. He just does far too much. He puts inflection on every syllable. He is constantly moving, upstaging and throwing in business. He tries to steal every scene. He is dangerously close to going 'hurrah' and slapping his thigh.

And he also does something that really f*cking annoys me. There should be a word for it. What it is, is when an actor is given a speech in which there is a figurative reference to the male member i.e. 'Prick love for pricking', the actor will inevitably illustrate the metaphor by thrusting out his groin, as though to say 'Look - It's a joke! He meant to say PENIS! Aah!'

From now on, this will be called 'doing an Anthony Andrews'.

I want to shoot actors who do that sort of thing with a shotgun like the one that Yosemite Sam had.

So, Anthony Andrews. His is clearly the most appalling performance in this play. At no point does he get within a hundred million miles of the character of Mercutio. But also deserving mention in the annals of f*ck-up are Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo is played by Patrick The High Life Ryecart. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'But he was quite good in Mindwarp.' Yes, he was, and I enjoyed the bit with the cup of tea too. But he isn't a Romeo. He's not handsome enough. He's not energetic enough. And, to be frank, he is not young enough. He looks about 35. Which is bit dodgy, considering JULIET IS SUPPOSED TO BE ONLY FOURTEEN.

Juliet is played by Rebecca Saire. Who hasn't worked a great deal since, unsurprisingly. She played Quatermass's granddaughter (didn't have any lines, now I understand why) and I think she turned up in a Fry & Laurie sketch where she had to choose between soup and broth. She is about the right age - maybe a few years over, but nothing unforgivable. But, well, I would describe her performance as wooden, except wood doesn't usually suck all the life out of a scene.

So the end result is that when Romeo and Juliet are exchanging dirty, flirty dialogue in their first meeting, Juliet looks bored shitless and Romeo looks like he’d much rather be lurking in the shadows.

Oh god, the dancing! The dancing! F*ck me! STOP THE DANCING! Prancing about in tights and codpieces! This is the sort of shit that gives Shaky a bad name. EVERYONE LOOKS LIKE TWATS!

But back to the performances. Only occasionally to Patrick and Rebecca get across the meaning of what they are actually saying. Rebecca merely raises and lowers her eyebrows in the hope that will provide meaning, and Patrick barks out his dialogue like some sort of mad staccato Dalek doing an impersonation of Peter Sellers' impersonation of Lawrence Olivier's impersonation of Richard III.

To be fair, everyone else is quite good. John Gielgud plays the Chorus as a sort of bemused homosexual-about-town. Michael Paddington Bear Hordern is almost as good as he was as Ludicrus Sextus in Up Pompeii. Celia Johnson isn't bad as the nurse - that's Celia Johnson of 'Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson' fame, she was in Brief Encounter a kind of 1940's Trainspotting. There's John Watchdoom! Paul in there as Mr Montague. And Alan Rickman looks a complete dick with his pudding-bowl hairdo as Tybalt.

Who else? Well, I'm getting to the interesting ones now. Christopher Strauli is Benvolio - you wait twenty years for a Christopher Strauli and then two come along at once - and Debbie observed that he had a very good arse. Playing a page is obscure 80's alternative comedian also-ran and alleged Warriors Gate Tharil Mark Arden. Playing Friar John is John 'Fleet Warden Samor' Savident, I said playing Friar John is John 'Fleet Warden Samor' Savident. As Peter is Paul Henry, who I once saw as Buttons in panto in Stafford but who is probably best known for being Benny out of Crossroads. He's actually very good, and possibly is a great talent gone to waste, though to be fair he is one of those people with a face that is too big for their head. And his arse looked like a bag of potatoes.

But the big news is that playing Lady Capulet is the radiant, lovely, latter-day gay icon, Jacqueline Hill. Barbara!

She's rather good in it. A shame the rest of it is so f*cking bad, really.

Next up: Love's Labour’s Lost